I’ve never been a fan of supplements. I take Vitamin D and Fish Oil because they’re the most common deficiencies but I rarely feel different after taking multi-vitamins or those herbal medicines with funny names. (But maybe the difference isn’t meant to be overtly felt? Maybe the magic is more subtle?)
Last year though, after hitting an abrupt wall with my training at the gym, I started to experiment with creatine — a supplement I’d heard a lot about but one that also attracts a lot of critics:
- “It doesn’t work!”
- “It’s bad for the kidneys!”
- “Isn’t creatine a steroid?”
But less than a week into taking the supplement, I could only wonder: why isn’t everyone taking this stuff? Because it wasn’t like most supplements. I could actually feel the difference and it was big.
(And don’t worry, I’ll address the critics soon enough).
What is Creatine?
Creatine is produced within the body and found in food products like meat, eggs, and fish. When consumed in larger quantities though, incredible things happen:
- You become stronger.
- You build muscle faster.
- Your aerobic ability improves.
It’s the first point that’s the most obvious while the other ones are seen to a lesser degree, but the first point is a big one. Take the supplement every day for 1-2 weeks and it’s like flicking a switch or discovering you have superpowers. You become stronger without any extra work.
One study in particular showed that creatine was:
…able to increase a 12% improvement in strength to 20% and able to increase a 12% increase in power to 26% following a training regiment using creatine monohydrate.
You do have to keep taking the supplement to continually feel its effect — it takes the 1-2 weeks just to kick-in — but it’s cheaper than many other supplements. You can get my favourite creatine powder for $15 on Amazon and that’ll last about three months at the normal dose of 5g per day (which is roughly one rounded teaspoon).
The week before taking creatine, I squatted 85kg for three sets of five reps. I had to fight for each rep and my form wasn’t great. The week after taking creatine, I squatted 90kg for three sets of five reps and the reps were easier than what I’d been lifting with the 85kg — I struggled less and my form was a lot better. The reps weren’t easy but I felt close to lifting even more weight during my next session.
There’s a few important things to note about this progress:
After lifting for a few months, adding 5kg to your squat over the course of a week is not a normal thing to do. Especially when you’re a lightweight like me — I weighed just 69kg at the time. Usually, your progress will dramatically slow after the first 2-3 months.
I’d only been taking creatine for a week. And maybe my body was quick to absorb it but I imagine I would have made further progress had I continued taking it. (I’ll explain in a moment why I stopped taking creatine until recently.)
I didn’t change anything about my diet or training. There wasn’t an X-factor that I’ve failed to mention. The creatine is the only addition to my regime and, as far as I can tell, it’s the only reason my strength jumped so significantly in a matter of days.
But I did exaggerate in the headline when I said no one’s taking creatine since, in reality, it’s:
- Very popular among athletes.
- One of the most studied supplements on the planet.
I’m just surprised we don’t see it recommended for “regular” people when it provides such dramatic results without any effort. Isn’t that the dream? To make progress without doing anything?
You might be thinking that there has to be some grand side-effects though if it’s otherwise so wonderful. But, well, not really.
Risks & Side-Effects
Let’s get a few things out of the way:
- Creatine is not a steroid.
- Creatine does not damage the kidneys.
- Creatine has no significant side-effects.
And that’s not a liberal use of the word significant. These are the potential side-effects of creatine:
- Dehydration, but you simply need to drink more water. You don’t even need to drink a lot more water. Just a bit extra.
- Cramps, which stems from the dehydration, so water or a sports drink with lots of electrolytes will take care of this.
- Weight gain, but this is water weight gain. You’re not getting fat. If you ever stop taking creatine, the weight will go away.
- Diarrhoea, but I’ve never had a problem and it seems to be tied with dosage. Stick with the 5g dose and you should be fine.
There will, of course, be more studies done in the future so there’s still more to learn about the supplement, but all it takes is a perusal of the examine.com page to see a lot of comforting evidence.
How Not To Use Creatine
Despite everything I’ve said though, my first experience with creatine ended badly. It was, however, my own fault.
Like I said before, I hit an abrupt wall with my training at the end of last year. I’d been hoping to squat 100kg before January but 85kg seemed like my limit. I just couldn’t lift anymore and, with every workout, I felt increasingly tired — yawning during workouts, etc.
At this point, as I teetered on the verge of overtraining, I should have:
- Improved my diet.
- Gotten a lot more sleep.
- Taken a week to deload.
But I did none of these things. I had less than two months to add 15kg to my squat and I was impatient.
My solution was to take creatine. I used it as a quick-fix to push myself when my body was crying aloud to rest and recover. I was overtraining but continued to ignore how I felt.
For the briefest of moments, the plan worked and my squat went up. I was making progress again. But the day after I managed the glory of my 90kg squat, I lay down for an afternoon nap and, when I woke, I felt horrible — headache, fatigue, and the first signs of a cold. Then, for the rest of the week:
- I remained confined to bed.
- The cold developed.
- I threw up a few times.
It was a strange sickness since it seemed to change from day to day but, in either case, my body was telling me to take a break.
Forever stubborn though, I returned to the gym and tried to lift weights (this time without the creatine since I wanted to believe it was the culprit, rather than my inability to take a break). I dropped down to lifting just 60kg but even that was too much. I felt groggy during workouts and never walked out of the building with the rush of endorphins that had made me addicted to lifting in the first place. After two weeks of this, I had to accept that I couldn’t keep going. I took three weeks off.
All of this happened four months ago and, while I returned to the gym again for a brief stint after New Year’s, I wasn’t ready for the return and have decided that I won’t start lifting again until the end of April — once I’ve recovered from deviated septum surgery.
I am taking creatine again though. I’ll just make sure to use it properly this time around: as an enhancement, not a cure.
If you’re willing to at least test creatine for a few weeks to see what it can do, here’s a few things to keep in mind:
- You only want creatine monohydrate. There are other forms of creatine but these cost more without having an observed benefit. Don’t believe any marketing hype that says otherwise.
- Stick with creatine power or capsules. There is a liquid variant but it’s ineffective. Most people will prefer powder since individual capsules contain very low doses (so you need a lot of them).
- You don’t need to “load” creatine. This speeds up absorption but the impact isn’t always noticeable and you’ll burn through the creatine faster than needed. I prefer sticking with a consistent, 5g dose.
- You don’t need to “cycle” creatine. You don’t need to take a break from it. This just stems from when people thought creatine had side-effects. You can take it regularly without a problem.
- Not everyone will feel the benefits. I’m not sure why this happens but a minority people just don’t gain anything from creatine. Try it anyway though. Most people will at least feel some effect.
You won’t hear me talk a lot about supplements because it can be such an iffy industry with a lot of crap peddled by sociopaths. This feels like one of the exceptions though. Creatine is:
And if you try it yourself, you’ll feel the effects within a week or two, or you won’t. There’s no need to buy a 12-month supply and beat a dead horse into submission. Give it a go and see what happens.